Bunnies and Elephants

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

After the... wildness... of the Wild Coast, we were a little shocked when we rolled into a new province, KwaZulu Natal, and the scenery changed dramatically. Gone were the dried out pastures and herds of cows and, in their place, were condos, parking lots and gated beaches. We stayed a couple nights, though, and spent a day at the beach - we actually swam in the ocean one day (the only day in South Africa for Allison did and only the second for Jeff - it is winter here...). It wasn't that interesting, though, and we were compelled to move on to the big city of Durban soon enough.

We spent a lot of time in Durban working online. We had been emailing back and forth with a couple of discount air ticket brokers since early June and were at a point where we wanted to commit to an itinerary for the rest of our trip. But doing this suddenly required us to coordinate a lot of details - visits from family members, ideal amounts of time in one region versus another, where in the US to fly back into... Finally, though, we got it organized and are officially going around the world. We are flying to India mid-September, then to Southeast Asia early-December, to Hawaii mid-March and then to the west coast of the US at the end of March. Hard to comprehend, really.

But that isn't all we did... First of all, we really enjoyed being in the city. Durban is incredibly cosmopolitan, even for the culturally diverse country of South Africa. The largest Indian/South Asian population in the country lives in and around Durban, descendants of indentured servants brought to the country a couple hundred years ago. They have maintained a strong sense of their cultural heritage, though, and there are a couple business districts specializing in spices, saris, etc. In addition to the Indian population, there is a large community of Muslims and the largest Mosque (supposedly) in the Southern Hemisphere. We got a tour from an incredibly enthusiastic woman who worked hard to impress upon us all the connections between Islam and Western culture. At the end she asked us with a lot of concern if it was as bad for Muslims to be in America as the media portrays.

One highlight of Durban for us was discovering a great local dish that was also incredibly cheap, called bunny chow. It is a quarter or half loaf of bread with the inside scooped out and then filled with a curry. You can use the insides of the bread to eat the curry, or, like us, you can ask for a fork. Supposedly, the dish was originally created for black golf caddies, called bunnies, who, during the Apartheid years, were not allowed to use the dishes and silverware at white-only golf clubs. While these prohibitions have thankfully changed, you can now find bunny chow throughout much of Durban and the surrounding areas at cheap take-out restaurants. It was great. A huge lunch for about $1.50 - almost unheard of in this country. We had bunny chow for lunch three out of four days in Durban...

From Durban we headed up the North Coast of KwaZulu Natal into yet another distinct region. This time, instead of resorts, we passed through lots of sugarcane plantations and forestry projects, and we stayed one night at a backpackers on an organic lemongrass farm. This region is home to the Zulus, although we did a pretty appalling job of actually getting a feel for Zulu culture. It was a little harder to find it in uncanned, non-touristy form, unlike the Xhosa culture of the Wild Coast.

Our next stop was the resort town of St. Lucia, also located on the Indian Ocean, just south of Swaziland. St. Lucia is famous primarily for its huge hippo and crocodile populations. It is also known for pristine white sand beaches, but an evil wind whipped sand everywhere the afternoon we stopped by, so we were back in the car within 10 minutes. We did see a crocodile on a riverbank and some hippos in the river, though. Unfortunately, the hippos were sort of far away and we mainly just saw their heads popping up for air. We probably should have done the adventure kayaking trips into the estuary for a better look.

From St. Lucia we headed inland for our first game park in Africa - Hluhluwe/Imfolozi Game Reserve. We stayed at a very nice backpackers spot that was more like a bushcamp-style luxury lodge than the standard hostels we have been in, and then got up early the next morning to get to the park gates at dawn. Although plenty of people go on guided safaris, we had been told it was a great park to self-drive, so we were on our own. It was great! We drove from 6:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. with just a couple of quick stops. We saw all sort of wildlife - lots of giraffes, a couple buffalo, various antelopes, a bunch of zebra, some wildebeest, at least 15 white rhinos (and maybe one black rhino, which is much rarer - but it was too far away to tell, unfortunately)... The biggest highlight of the day, though, was having three families of elephants cross the road in front of us. The big matriarch of each group passed first - she would stop and face us, then give us a look, a threatening step or two and a swing of the head to let us know who was in charge. She would then pass, followed by the rest of her group, including lots of babies. And here are the two of us in this tiny Toyota, front and center, which could have been elephant toe-jam if they had felt inclined.

We didn't see any cats, but we did see one predator at the end of the day. Just as we decided we had to get back to the gates before they closed, a hyena trotted out in front of us (they are a lot bigger than we ever thought - like a German Sheperd...). Which leads into a sort of funny story... In classic form, we left ourselves hardly any leeway for error in getting back to the gates before they closed, and had to drive pretty fast to get out on time. It was getting darker and darker and we were starting to get nervous - what if an animal comes out on the road? All of a sudden a huge male giraffe comes out of the bushes as if to cross the road and seemed as surprised to see our headlights as we were by him! We joked that at least we could drive under a giraffe if need be. We made it out of the gates at 6:04pm and they were then closed behind us. Apparently, if we had been any later, we would have been forced to stay at the high-end lodge in the park.

After another night in the bushcamp backpackers we started off for the Drakensberg Mountains, located roughly in the middle of the country, east of Lesotho. Yet another unique South African landscape. We had heard the Drakensberg Mountains were incredibly beautiful and are the highest mountains in South Africa, so we were expecting something sort of Alpine or Andean in nature. At first, we were a little disappointed, as they weren't that different than the rocky hills around Hogsback (where we had been a few weeks before) or the southwestern US - more of a big rock face than mountains, at least to us. But we did a couple of hikes in the area while we stayed that made us appreciate them in the end - much more impressive close up. We'll include a few photos.

After three days in the Drakensberg, we started the long trek back to Cape Town to get our car rental back in time. We drove for two days through the middle of the country, which is basically flat and desolate, especially at this time of year, which is very dry. It has a certain attractiveness, though - lots of interesting rock formations here and there. But basically just a long straight road - so straight and with so few towns that there are lots of signs reminding drivers to take breaks, as well as rumble strips to keep you on your toes. We finally made it to Cape Town, though, and handed in our keys for at least a little while. We'll have a report of our second round of Cape Town soon...
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